Law school applications are down. The quality of students admitted, based on test scores, is down. Bar exam passing rates are down. Law is not a happy profession.
"Even as applications fall across the board, a growing number of people with low scores are expected to show up to class," Bloomberg reports. "Some 8,700 low-scoring students will likely start law school in 2015, up from 7,000 in 2010, according to (University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Jerome) Organ, who looked at LSAC data on the number of applicants as of March 6, 2015, and projected how much the pool would grow and how many would matriculate, based on averages from the previous three years."
Bloomberg also notes that bar exam scores have been falling: "Scores on the multi-state portion of the test dipped to their lowest point in five years, and pass rates are down across the country."
A dispute broke out last fall, as Eric Moeser, president of the National Conference of Bar Examiners, wrote a memo to law school deans absolving the examiners of fault on the declining scores.
"A law school should only be accepting people who can complete the program and enter the profession,” Moeser told Bloomberg at the time. “If you as a law school are sitting there and admitting a student for whom you cannot say that, I think you have an obligation to do something about it.”
Meanwhile, at least one attorney thinks that the problem is not that we need better law school candidates. Writing in Newsweek, Allen Mendenhall, a staff attorney to an Alabama supreme court justice and a doctoral candidate in English at Auburn University, argues that we need fewer barriers to entering the legal profession — whether law school or bar exams.
It is, he argues, "unclear how memorizing often archaic rules to prepare for standardized, high-stakes multiple-choice tests that are administered under stressful conditions will in any way improve one’s ability to competently practice law."
A better model for legal education, rather than burdening young lawyers with hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt, Mendenhall argues, is the apprenticeship model that was common in the 19th century, the system that turned Abraham Lincoln into an attorney.
"The legal community and consumers of legal services would be better served by the apprenticeship model that prevailed long before the rise of the bar exam," Mendenhall argues. "Under this model, an aspiring attorney was tutored by experienced lawyers until he or she mastered the basics and demonstrated his or her readiness to represent clients."
Separating the wheat from the chaff doesn't require expensive and rigid licensing systems, Mendenhall adds.
"Today, with services like Amazon, eBay, Uber and Airbnb, consumers are accustomed to evaluating products and service providers online and for wide audiences," he argues. "Learning about lawyers’ professional reputations should be quick and easy, a matter of a simple Internet search."